Singapore positions itself as model of smart-city development in Asia

October 18, 2018
The city-state’s goals are big—reducing energy consumption and streamlining transportation among them. But with limited resources, such as a fast-aging workforce, so are the obstacles.

Singapore’s Smart Nation initiative is a highly-integrated strategy, managed directly under the country’s prime minister. It sets out a plan for the city-state to become the “world’s first Smart Nation” by 2025. Singapore has been defining and developing a large set of smart applications to increase citizen service access, and to prepare for an increasingly congested, resource-constrained future with a rapidly aging population. The government estimates some 900,000 Singaporeans—one in every four—will be over 65 by 2030.

Singapore’s well-established objectives have been put in place by its government’s Smart Nation and Digital Government Office (SNDGO), which reports to the prime minister and is the cornerstone of the city-state’s Smart City ecosystem. Dozens of initiatives, each overseen by clusters of government departments and ministries, look to leverage existing public infrastructure and service systems as launchpads for smart transformation. Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister-in-charge of its Smart Nation Initiative, explains that this creates “an open business and innovation ecosystem, so that we can be a place where new ideas and services can be developed, commercialized and deployed. We believe that a concentration of talent will result in a tipping point which attracts even more talent. If we build it, they will come, and our efforts seem to be working so far.” Examples of this are emerging in Singapore’s attempts to focus smart technology developments to address the challenges mentioned above, such as robot caregiver prototypes for the elderly among the robotics initiatives at Nanyang Technical University (NTU).

Singapore is attempting to build such an ecosystem around electronic payments, among other areas. It is also working to leverage the country’s urban planning expertise to develop solutions to further Singapore’s sustainability objectives. The country aims for 80% of its building stock to be considered “green” by 2030. It is developing a common smart meter platform for its electricity, gas and water meters, and coordinating the development of lighting technology, monitoring and sensing, device automation and smart grid integration. It intends to reduce energy consumption by overlaying these areas with analytics.

“We believe that a concentration of talent will result in a tipping point which attracts even more talent. If we build it, they will come, and our efforts seem to be working so far.”
Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister-in-charge of the Smart Nation Initiative

Autonomous driving and streamlining public transportation has also been a prime focus for Singapore, which is ever wary of the congestion challenges its rapid economic development has influenced. Singapore’s various self-driving vehicle (SDV) initiatives include commitments to large-scale R&D lab environments. One is NTU’s Centre of Excellence for Testing & Research of AVs (autonomous vehicles), which tests SDV prototypes at a 1.8-hectare test circuit at CleanTech Park. For more than seven years, the National University of Singapore has collaborated with the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) to develop a fleet self-driving golf buggies for campus environments.

These efforts point to the pervasive and holistic objectives Singapore is developing for SDVs, in the view of SMART’s Director, Professor Daniel Hastings. “Singapore’s autonomous vehicle future is not just cars, but a network of integrated vehicles that can service the spectrum of individual needs, such as an elderly citizen using an autonomous ‘walker’ to take them from their apartment to a campus buggy, which then takes them to a longer-haul public or semi-public vehicle.”

There are hurdles to Singapore’s Smart Nation trajectory; the country continues to struggle with low labor productivity growth as well as a slow-growing and fast-aging labor force overall. Moreover, the nation’s traditional path to innovation, which has often used its world-leading industry clusters such as fintech and biotech as global talent recruiting hubs, has come under social and political pressure as Singaporeans question immigration-driven growth. But the government hopes to counter this by intensifying its focus on demand-driven models for smart application development, particularly in green energy, payments and transaction security, and traffic congestion. This means there is a built-in market for startups, with prototypes that work in what is increasingly becoming Asia’s primary “living laboratory” of smart city solutions.

Top photo credit:  Patra Kongsirimongkolchai